This article is translated from its original Portuguese version and was written by Danilo Oliveira Vaz. He has done a fantastic job summarizing what we are doing to birth the field of culture design. Obrigado, Danilo!
Although often neglected, Design is a fundamental tool for the process of creating products, services, experiences and, as we shall see, concepts . In order to exemplify this statement, stop for a moment and look around. Think about the reasons that justify the choices of material, shape, and color for the objects in your environment. What led the creators of these objects to decide for such characteristics? Why not others? What would be the experience of using these objects if they had different compositions? All of these questions are part of the design process of something, and failure to respond to them can be dangerous. Literally.
Generally, a Design process only becomes apparent when it ceases to function, as at this point the product, service, or experience designed by that process fails and the end user suffers from it. However, regardless of whether we are aware of such processes or not, they exist — and they are everywhere.
The difference between awareness or lack of towards Design is the ability to reflect on the consequences of “design choices” on the users side. And the subsequent decisions in front of such reflection. That is, by being aware of the (desirable and undesirable) effects of a product or service, a user can decide whether to use it or not, or even to change it in a way that enhances its functionality according to a final goal. Obviously, such a possibility varies depending on the product, service or experience in question. However, it is invariably important, especially because of the feedback processes that dictate creation <-> creator interactions.
“The world is designed, and yet, the world designs us. We are trapped in a dynamic feedback loop between what we create as a species and the ways in which our created artifacts make us a species.1
Without going into too much metaphysical detail, it is possible to affirm that there will always be a relationship of influence between creator and creation. In other words, when we use design to create something, this something will affect the way we come to interact with the world and hence the way we “see” the world — including the thing that triggered this process. When we do not look at such events, negative consequences can arise, such as patterns of passivity over non-functional designs — especially if the created thing reinforces the perception that it is not possible to create something better. But even when we become aware of harmful loops, it is possible that it is extremely difficult to modify them if the creation <-> creator relationship enters an equilibrium state, as exemplified by the concept of Attractor in Dynamic Systems.
When we think of products generally associated with design processes, such as cell phones, computers, furniture, etc. it may be difficult to observe the phenomenon described above. This is explained by the high turnover and innovation rates of these products (which usually have their durability designed by factory). However, if we extrapolate the concept of Design to other spheres of human life (remember, the design is ubiquitous), such feedback phenomena become evident. And it is reasonable to say that the sphere in which Design is most relevant is the cultural.
It is extremely difficult to establish a definition that is comprehensive enough to uphold the Culture concept. Nevertheless, it is possible to find a reasonably weighted wording on Wikipedia 2:
“Culture (from the Latin culture) is a concept of many meanings, the most common being, especially in anthropology, the generic definition formulated by Edward B. Tylor according to which culture is “all that complex which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, morality, law, customs and all other habits and capacities acquired by man as a member of society. “
It is possible to see the broad meaning of the term through formal definitions such as this, but also through the individual interpretations of each person who, by being created by and creator of cultural elements, defines the concept. Particularly, Emergir prefers a delimitation focused on the dynamic characteristics of Culture, which can be achieved when this concept is seen through the lenses of Evolution and Complexity Theory. This approach sees Culture as the dynamic process of information exchange between members of a species that, together with genetic exchanges, determines the its adaptability in an environment over time.
“The core idea of cultural evolution is that cultural change is an evolutionary process that shares fundamental similarities with — but also differs in key ways from — genetic evolution. As such, human behavior is shaped by both genetic and cultural evolution. The same can be said for many other animal species; like the tool use of chimpanzees or Caledonian crows or the complex social organization of hives for ants, bees, termites, and wasps. 3
From this perspective, Culture assumes an extremely important role with regard to the perpetuation of the human species on planet Earth. And there are many examples of how cultural elements have determined — and continue to determine — the relationships of human groups to each other, and to their environment. The Multilevel Selection Theory (MST) as put forward by evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson is one of them. MST states that egocentrism is an advantageous trait for individual intra-group dynamics (as a dispute between members of a group), while altruism and collaboration are more advantageous for inter-group dynamics (such as the territorial or population dispute of two groups in the same region). And the theory goes further to assert that the phenomenon of natural selection occurs at the scale of groups of individuals of the same species (and not just among individuals of this species), depending on the different interactions within and between groups 4.
However, to this day most evolutionary-cultural phenomena such as MST have been manifested in completely unintentional ways. That is, the subjects influenced by these phenomena (including humans) have shown little awareness of such influences and, consequently, almost no power to make them bidirectional. In other words, until today we find ourselves at the mercy of evolutionary “wills” dictated by cultural processes. At first this may not seem like a big problem. After all, “we’re still alive today, are not we?” But the story is not quite that.
The recent macro-scale cultural manifestations derived from the industrial revolution — especially the economic ones — have shown themselves as great threats to life as we know it. The global belief in extractivism as an engine of economic and social growth, and the idea that the human species is disconnected from the natural processes around it, have paved the way towards an increasingly catastrophic future. So far, the less protected species have paid for the high price of this global economic culture with their existence. However, with the certainty of the beginning of the Anthropocene geological age — characterized by the human influence in its environment — we began to experience the same threats through natural disasters and intense changes in the planet’s regulatory mechanisms, such as global warming. Besides that, contemporary socio-cultural phenomena that present the same threat to life have similar origins. One example is radical terrorism, which is generally fueled by a post-colonial conjunctures characterized by a lack of resources and perspectives in countries that have had their natural and human resources seriously exploited.
And while it is risky to claim that the extractive cultural processes mentioned above have always happened in an unintentional way — given famous Western government plans that have fostered such ideas — it is reasonable to argue that these were almost never developed and intentionally modified by the majority of people affected by them. And if we think about the evolution of these processes over time, the intentionality becomes even less present, but with increasingly serious consequences. However, this time it is not only the “users” who suffer from the lack of intentionality, but also the “creators” of these cultural phenomena, since the feedback effects — such as natural disasters and radical threats — threaten everyone, without distinction.
“All living organisms are to some extent autonomous by the fact of following a vital pattern that is their own, but in man this autonomy is an essential condition for its further development. We give up part of our autonomy when we are sick or disabled, but giving it up every day and every time would mean turning life into a chronic disease. The best possible life — and here consciously lies disputed — is that which demands an even greater degree of self-direction, self-expression, and self-realization. In this sense, personality, once exclusive attribute of kings, corresponds in democratic theory to every man. Life itself, with its fullness and totality, can not be delegated. 5
Field of Cultural Design — Applied Cultural Evolution
In order for us no longer be the victims of unintentional evolutionary-cultural processes and have the certainty of life in harmony for ourselves and for future generations, we must take the reins of these processes and guide them with scientific rigor and according to solid foundations of coexistence and sustainability. This is what Cultural Design, an emerging field of interdisciplinary studies interested in the application of design principles for the intentional evolution of cultural elements claims:
“Just as we find ourselves in greatest need, a new capacity can be brought into existence that enables us to shape the evolution of cultural systems at the local, regional, and planetary scales. This capacity is nascent across many knowledge domains. It will require a grand synthesis of many different fields that have been siloed in the past. I call this transdisciplinary synthesis ‘culture design’. 6
As previously mentioned, the already established field of Cultural Evolution seeks to integrate the theory of evolution with the studies done by the social sciences in order to understand the change of social phenomena over time. Within this context, the field of Cultural Design presents itself as a scientific area interested in applying the findings of Cultural Evolution. If we return to the discussion of feedback processes between creation and creator, we can think of this as an effort that seeks to 1) raise awareness of the effects of cultural design on its “users” and 2) intentionally modify design choices in order to achieve results desired by these same “users”.
Complexity scientist and change strategist Joe Brewer has led the efforts in this field, and alongside strategic partners, he has taken important steps towards its de facto creation. Joe’s academic qualifications and professional experiences justify his decision to dedicate his life to such a difficult — but extremely necessary — task.
“Joe has a unique background in physics, math, philosophy, atmospheric science, complexity research, and cognitive linguistics. More than a decade ago, he left the academy to trail blaze a path for other research practitioners to follow. Awakened to the threat of human-induced climate disruption while pursuing a Ph.D. in atmospheric science, he has switched fields and begun to work with scholars in the behavioral and cognitive sciences with the hope of helping to create large-scale behavior change at the level of global civilization. 7
During the last few years this scientist has built solid foundations for the creation of the field of Cultural Design. These are represented in the numerous projects and partnerships created with institutions and research centers focused on the great human issues. And Joe is now very close to officializing the creation of the field and its infrastructure in partnership with a renowned US research center. But before we talk about that, it is important to clarify what is, in fact, the field of Cultural Design.
Cultural Design — What is it?
It is understandable that the idea of intentional design of cultural processes may cause fear in some readers. After all, wouldn’t this be the same as imposing ways of behaving in a population? No! It is important to clarify this point to understand the real potential of the field explored in this text. A quick historical reflection shows that cultural impositions that restrict a people’s freedom and self-determination have one overarching feature in common: they happen from top to bottom. In other words, they are imposed by a group that holds a greater determined power (warlike, economic, etc.) over a group of lesser power. This was true for the conquests of the Roman Empire, for the colonization of the Americas and Africa, and for the recent neoliberal wave. Quite different from that, what the field of Cultural Design proposes is an active approach to evolutionary-cultural processes through bottom-up dynamics. Rather than passively and unconsciously receive the cultural elements imposed on themselves, people and communities would be equipped with the knowledge and techniques of the field to determine for themselves which cultural elements should be fostered in future evolutionary processes. Most importantly, such groups would act in a manner that ensures that those goals are achieved.
If we think about it, this is already true when we think of the organizations and institutions that today play an important role in the design of cultural elements. As, for example, the various marketing and public relations departments of companies, different NGOs fighting for a cause, or groups of members of civil society that organize around local causes. However, these groups rarely collaborate with one another on systemic efforts, such as combating the depletion of a region’s natural resources. In addition, such actions in silos lack a rigorous approach to the determination of their effects (desirable and undesirable) and a theoretical line that makes sense. And it is precisely these points that the field of Cultural Design aims to improve.
“One way to think about the current prediction is that humanity has been gradually cultivating the capacity for culture for more than a century — through our efforts to craft social policies, use advertising to shape consumer behavior, deploy military and financial resources to gain power and create market economies, and so on. What we have not done well is to apply these skills for the betterment of everyone. 6
By using the current technological resources at our disposal to empower groups and communities that wish to evolve their cultural elements in an active way, Cultural Design intends to establish the necessary connections between the different areas of scientific knowledge. In more detail:
“The keystone pillars of this field — which comprises hundreds of existing domains of research and practice — are complex research, cognitive science, and cultural evolution. ~ complexity research looks at the interactions among many parts that give rise to novelty in physical, biological and social systems. It includes topics like the study of tipping points, feedback loops, rules of local interaction, emergence of global behaviors, dynamic attractors, and so forth. ~ cognitive science brings together all that is known about human thought and behavior. It looks at the neural processing of language, how emotions shape reasoning, why the body and brain interact in profound and subtle ways that give rise to the making of meaning, and much more. ~ cultural evolution is the application of evolutionary principles to the emergence of fitness criteria for idea propagation. It looks at the spread of ideas and emergence of new cultural traits in social systems at the interpersonal and institutional scales. Taken together, these knowledge domains enable designers to engage in the many practices of “applied memetics” — uncovering the patterns of social change that arise when ideas and behaviors spread across social systems. The skills of this craft include creation of viral media events, shaping of cultural mythologies, crafting of social policies, diffusing innovations of both technical and social nature, and the host of social analytics for monitoring and shaping the process throughout. 6
In this way, Cultural Design would serve as a source of scientific knowledge (practical and theoretical) for groups of people working towards sustainable social change and seeking an interdisciplinary and robust approach to the implementation, evaluation and iteration of their practices. In a more practical way, the field would act as a data driven social science that makes use of technological data acquisition resources to guide collective actions in different areas, from the management of natural resources to the study of the basic elements that determine certain human behaviors.
So far, Joe has built a strong foundation for the creation of the field, relying on strategic project partnerships in which he himself was involved. It is worth mentioning what these initiatives are for us to get an idea of the scale of his work.
“We are preparing the platforms for collaboration through which millions of people will be able to participate in the wholesale redesign of our civilization.”
Culture Evolution Society
The first project that deserves attention is the Culture Evolution Society. This is an interdisciplinary research group initially led by Joe Brewer and incubated within the Evolution Institute with the help of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The society consists of researchers, professors and enthusiasts of the field of Cultural Evolution that look for a greater integration between the different works and academic projects around the subject. CES was formalized in September 2017 with the organization of its first conference at the Max Planck Research Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. In addition, during the same year, the members mapped the major challenges for the field of Cultural Evolution (Image bellow), and established a body of governance and membership system that will allow them to function in the long term. Today, Joe no longer leads the project given his total dedication to the creation of the field of Cultural Design. However, CES activities continue and their next conference will take place at Arizona State University School of Evolution and Change, in Tempe, Arizona.
“The global community of researchers we are organizing in the Cultural Evolution Society have given themselves the mission to synthesize biology, the social sciences, and humanities on the academic front … This will be an essential pillar for guiding the (Culture Design) practitioner community with data analytics, cultural monitoring, and action research projects — where every location engaging in social change can become a field site for cultural evolution research. 8
Joe also participated in the creation of The Rules, a collective of writers, activists, researchers and programmers whose goal is to expose the root causes of the crises that plague humanity today. To do so, they work on the dissemination of alternative narratives to the extractive economic system characteristic of globalization, and serve as a hub for connecting people and ideas. Among these actions, the Culture Hack Lab deserves to be highlighted:
“Through the Culture Hack Lab, we work to understand how stories change culture over time. Capitalism, for example, is not something tangible that you can touch, it’s a powerful story that millions of us around the world have bought into. But it’s also an old, worn-out story that needs to be replaced with one fit for the 21st century and beyond. We use our framing and data analysis expertise, our creativity and storytelling powers to show up the stories that have shaped our global economy, and how they have brought about things like poverty, inequality and climate change. And then we tell new ones that show that another world is possible in a way that feels like common sense. “
Thus, it is not difficult to imagine how the proximity with the The Rules can aid in the creation of the field of Cultural Design.
And another outstanding partnership is the Smart Ecologies project, which had Joe as one of its founding advisors and who is now in advanced stages of development of theoretical and infrastructure models for business and alternative economic systems aimed at a stable positioning in the post-capitalist world. One such model is the global SHIFT incubator, as detailed below:
“My partners at Smart Ecologies are building media platforms that merge the analytic tools of ecosystem science with best practices in technology startups to create networks of social benefit companies for the new economy. Among our plans is a future project to re-invent journalism in a way that increases inquiry and reduces the likelihood of polarization around conversations that matter. 8
With this robust network of pre-projects and partners, Joe takes the next steps to meet his goal. More specifically, his task at the moment has been the preparation of the institutional incubation of the organization that will initiate the field of Cultural Design: The Culture Design Institute.
“No organization exists with the mission to vet, organize, and translate the vast bodies of scientific knowledge about cultural change into the” network solution “of monitoring and guiding change practices in communities as they struggle with real-time disruptions across scales of time, space, and complexity. 9
Culture Design Institute (CDI)
Still in its creation phase, this institute will serve as the heart of the field of Cultural Design, connecting with other projects, philanthropic entities, research centers and, more important, communities around the world who want to apply the knowledge of this field to the improvement of their activities of social transformation. The idea is that the institute should operate as a non-profit organization and maintained through four pillars:
- Financial support from philanthropic institutions through grants;
- Donations made by individuals who believe in the mission of the Institute;
- Consulting services for projects and services of various clients — governments, NGOs, civil society associations;
- Trainings and certifications for people who wish to become cultural designers and who seek qualification for both.
In order to make this plan a reality, Joe is in the advanced stages of a partnership with the Oregon Research Institute, where the Institute of Cultural Design would be incubated for two years until reaching a stage of greater maturity.
“The Culture Design Institute is a yet-to-be-formed entity that bridges two worlds. One is the world of scholarly scientific research in complexity science, evolutionary studies, the cognitive and behavioral sciences, public health and prevention research, the social sciences, and related disciplines that span within and among them. The other is the world of change practitioners grappling with real-world challenges who lack access to this vast body of tools and knowledge. 9
Culture Design Labs (CDL)
Once the CDI is established, Joe and his partners plan a long-term networked action so the institute will have the desired and necessary impact. Inspired by the concept of field site for the study of Cultural Evolution 10 11, the idea is that all communities, associations and organizations working for social betterment around sustainability pillars can connect to the CDI (and other groups in the network) in order to improve their practices using the methods and technologies of the emerging field of Cultural Design. Examples include (but are not limited to) local agriculture groups or permaculture, local school systems, communities fighting for environmental causes, etc. Each of these centers would be what Joe has called a Culture Design Lab.
“Our vision is to build a global network of culture design labs where every community that strives for greater health and resilience is potentially a field site for applied cultural evolution research. We build monitoring, analysis, and training capacities, informed by the social best sciences available-to help change practitioners engage in rigorous and effective approaches to intentionally evolving their cultures, landscapes, and institutions in the manner that is consistent with ecological principles. 9
These labs will create symbiotic relationships among themselves and the CDI, exchanging scientific, technological, and human resources. In a next phase of the development of the field of Cultural Design those interested in starting the first labs (or formalizing existing efforts) will receive adequate training through the CDI. Training that would not only involve theoretical engagement but also physical and emotional enhancement to deal with the challenges of transforming the cultural elements of a locality. So these people can serve as sparks for the field of Cultural Design in their regions, practicing, disseminating and improving the practices necessary to guide humanity (through bottom up movements) toward a harmonious future.
The activities of each CDL will depend primarily on their context and the cultural challenges they face. However, in one of his texts Joe describes some examples:
- “Group facilitation can be done to convene workshops, run scenarios, cultivate consensus, or design action plans for a community of people. Discourse analysis can be done to study the language underlying thoughts and actions that were dysfunctional in the past to reveal where problems in understanding get in the way of finding workable solutions. Social learning processes can be identified to see how particular cultural practices get reproduced in younger generations or are altered by some kind of educational intervention. Pattern and trend analysis can be done to learn how things are changing in the social demographics of a particular community and for the larger social systems that impact them. 8
- “For example, if a small town was wiped out by tornadoes they might wantto rebuild on 100% renewable energy so they are not part of the problem of global warming that made severe storms more likely in the past. Or maybe a city riddled with bullets flung between white police and black community members might want to shift the social norms and mental models that militarized the police force in the past. Changes like these can be made intentionally, but only if those involved know what the practices of culture design happen to be. 8
It is also not difficult to imagine how such initiatives could achieve financial sustainability, given the growing interest of the public and private sectors in solutions to life-threatening problems. In addition, as mentioned above, robust business models and infrastructure are being created by Smart Ecology, which could serve as a blueprint for the development of CDLs.
Joe’s plans for the field of Cultural Design, for the CDI and for the CDLs are long-term. After all, the changes that these initiatives aim to catalyze are themselves slow. The planning below demonstrates some of the important milestones in this journey:
With the creation of the first CDLs over the next few years, demonstration projects are expected to be developed around the world over a period of 10 years. Following this, and hoping for the success of such projects, an explosion in the dissemination of best practices is predicted, resulting in a time when all human institutions and practices are based on principles of biomimetics.
Biomimetics: “Humans are clever, but without intending to, we have created massive sustainability problems for future generations. Fortunately, solutions to these global challenges are all around us. Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies-new ways of living-that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul. The core idea is that nature has solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival. 12
We are living the initial moments of this planning, where Joe, in addition to establishing the institutional partnerships for the creation of the field of Cultural Design, begins the work of structuring and formalizing the CDI. Important meetings have already taken place in early 2018 to ensure the incubation of the project with the Oregon Research Institute. And in parallel, Joe initiates fundraising efforts for the creation of a Cultural Evolution library that will supply the CDI. He also maintains an account at Patreon (a platform where users can financially help their favorite content creators), where cultural design enthusiasts can contribute to the project.
The creation of the field of Cultural Design and its goal of having all human activities operating from biomimetic principles until 2050 are undoubtedly extremely difficult tasks and will require coordination efforts of unique proportions. However, more and more people come to the conclusion that there are not many alternatives if we want to ensure the existence of the human species on planet Earth in the long run. And although there are no magic formulas for this to happen, the Cultural Design field presents real possibilities, with structures and connections rare to be found in other similar initiatives. With its approach towards awareness of the effects of design on evolutionary-cultural processes, the field establishes itself as the only effort that seeks to integrate the social, human and exact sciences under the umbrellas of complexities, evolution and cognition for the training of people working to solve local and regional systemic problems.
And as it was discussed at the beginning of this text on the feedback effects of design choices, it is extremely exciting to imagine what patterns would emerge between creation and creator from the moment the latter becomes aware of and guides the evolution of the former. That is, when people take the reins of cultural evolutionary processes, and guide them on the basis of sustainability principles such as biomimetics, it is impossible to predict what the emerging effects will be for society. Maybe we’re talking here about building a much better world than anyone can imagine today. After all, as pointed out in recent interviews by complexity researcher Daniel Schmachtenberger 13 and by the renowned ecological economist Robert Costanza, 14 a world of symbiotic relationships between humans and their environment would present an exponential improvement of life for all, including the current elites who, despite having high comparative purchasing powers, end up suffering from the same systemic hurdles that threaten all life on the planet.
And if there is one thing that the Anthropocene Age tells us is that we are the responsible ones for the mess we are currently in, and that only we have the ability to resolve this situation. In Emergir’s opinion, it is possible to put the house in order (we always start from an optimistic perspective). However, this requires truly innovative and emerging efforts, which sit on the edge of what is possible and what is impossible. Efforts such as the field of Cultural Design.
“I am going to make a bold claim now-that cultural evolution is THE MOST IMPORTANT body of science for dealing with the global crises arising from this unprecedented time in human history. The study of social behavior, emergent complexity in human systems, how political and economic systems change, the roles of language and technology for shaping human experience, what makes us uniquely human, how landscapes and ecosystems co-evolve across various spans of space and time , and so forth. These are the topics that matter most in the midst of an unprecedented planetary crisis unlike anything our species has seen before. 15
Onward, network !
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